Political leaders engage in anti-democratic communication to play in the attention economy, Joshua M. Scacco

20 de setembro de 2022
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In an interview with Brazilian investigative news agency Agência Pública, professor Joshua M. Scacco warns: “Just because someone is a governor or president doesn’t mean that their speech should get a platform”. Associate Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida and a Faculty Research Associate with the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, Scacco researches how new tecnology influences media, governments and democratic institutions.

“Some political leaders are using the norms of journalism, the training of journalists against themselves”, he said. During this interview the researcher explained how this idea applies to both the US — where it culminated in the Capitol attack and its ongoing consequences – and Brazil. In Brazil, where the current president has been pushing coup-mongering rhetoric and attacking the electoral system ahead of the October elections, Scacco points out that the uncritical reporting of anti-democratic speeches can help sow chaos rather than prevent it.

Since the Capitol attack in the US, we Brazilians have been wondering whether a similar event might occur in Brazil, during or after this year’s elections, which will take place in October. Do you believe this is possible, and if so, what can journalists and institutions do to prevent it?

Brazil and the United States have very different democratic structures in terms of how voting occurs, in terms of democratic institutions in general, as well as very different citizens. So we need to be careful about comparisons and think about how news coverage itself might be promoting the sorts of possibilities that have not come to pass yet. At this moment, journalists should be dealing with what are the knowns as opposed to what are the unknowns. And the reason is that political leaders internationally, including in the United States and Brazil, are participants in the attention economy. Some of the things they say, including anti-democratic communication — ranging from threats against journalists and individuals to challenging the structures of democracy —, are said because they know it gets attention. And so one of the things that journalists should be thinking about and doing at this moment is de-escalating these situations because political leaders are counting on the escalation and therefore being able to play the press against people and the press against political candidates.

Avoiding declaratory journalism is a valid point. However, it is undeniable that there are threats to democracy or more blatantly to the electoral system. How do we cover this? How was the 2020 presidential election coverage in the US, and what is your assessment of its successes and mistakes?

First of all, news coverage in the United States is not to blame for what happened on January 6, 2021. Donald Trump is to blame for what happened. It’s important [to say that] because, at the end of the day, the president who is in charge has to take responsibility for it.

Secondly, news outlets did not understand the reality of Donald Trump for his entire presidency. That’s very clear. The ways in which they covered him boosted his anti-democratic messaging even further than it would have gone just on Twitter. Journalists were playing in the attention economy because they knew that covering Donald Trump would potentially attract viewers.

So what we need to be thinking about is how can journalists refocus attention at these particular moments when you have leaders who want to essentially set democracy on fire. Journalists are one of the key defenders of democracy in that regard, being able to alert people, but also educate people about how democracy works. It’s not just a matter of telling people that peaceful transfers of power are the hallmark of democracy. We hear that all the time. We hear that in every presidential inauguration speech — in the United States, every four years: Peaceful transfers of power are the hallmark of democracy. And yet, if you ask most people, they wouldn’t understand what that means.

And so journalists can provide a role in that regard, explaining to individuals why peaceful transfers of power are important, how peaceful transfers of power keep people safe. On January 6 in the US, people died at the Capitol. Peaceful transfers of power also ensure that the will of the voters is heard and is executed in the new government. So that frame that story frame, that news frame is very different than “candidate X says he will not accept the results of the election”.

More than two years after the attack, what is the population’s perception of this incident like? Is there a consensus?

What you see, at least in terms of the public opinion polling, is that their reaction to it has become highly polarized, where the event is justified by a large portion of Republicans and/or downplayed. Among Democrats and increasingly among independents as well, after the hearings, [we see them] saying that it was a troubling incident.

The language that has been used by researchers to classify the event is it was an attempted coup — and the US hasn’t been in a position to use that type of language before. I think political leaders are hesitant to do it because many people think or thought that it couldn’t happen in the US. But what we see is it can happen.

These types of actions need to be held accountable. And that is what congressional leaders and the Department of Justice are looking at. And they will determine whether or not particular individuals need to be held accountable.

One of the resources used to cover political leaders who spread disinformation is fact-checking. Do you think that fact-checking is fulfilling its purpose?

I think fact-checking when done well is very effective. The challenge is that journalists write stories in particular ways that sometimes headline mis- and disinformation first. What journalists need to be thinking about is how do they headline good information first that then neutralizes the bad information [mentioned] somewhere else in the news story.

Most individuals who are reading or watching the news are only going to get the top lines, the headlines, the few paragraphs or the first couple of minutes of the news. Attention spans vary, [and there are] lots of media choices out there. So journalists need to be strategic in thinking about how can they get out to the good information in the time that they need to potentially neutralize the bad information that’s out there.

Disinformation disseminators, some populist political leaders, they’re using the norms of journalism, the training of journalists against them. And so journalists have to adapt and they have to think about new ways in which to deliver news products at this moment.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that journalists can’t directly quote political leaders. But what it does mean is they should consider other factors when a political leader is deemed necessary to be quoted. Just because someone is a governor or president doesn’t mean that their speech should get a platform in a particular media outlet.

There are also balancing mechanisms that journalists need to be engaged in, [such as] whether or not the claim is actually backed by empirical evidence, whether or not there actually is evidence for the claim out there.

Journalists have a gatekeeping function for a reason. Journalists are not stenographers for political officials.

One important element in the dissemination of antidemocratic messages is social networks. What is your view on banning content on social media?

One of the things we want to differentiate is the right of speech versus the right of reach. In the US, free speech rights are protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, in social media spaces, individuals don’t have [the same] free speech rights. These are private corporations that have put in place these platforms and they can decide how to govern them as they see fit.

That said, we also need to be thinking about this sort of question: just because someone can stand on a street corner and say whatever they want — or mostly whatever they want —, doesn’t mean it needs to be broadcast or given a broader platform. The person has exercised their free speech, but the decision of whether or not and how that speech will reach people is a different question altogether.

So when we think of something like De-Platforming, it works. It has the effect of taking away the reach that a particular person had previously. And what it can do is potentially cause some additional friction in terms of the spread of disinformation.

On the other hand, there has been a surge of platforms that present themselves as places of unrestricted freedom of speech, opposed to any content moderation, even of hate speech. Some of them, like Gettr, are even supporting Trump and Bolsonaro. How do you assess this situation?

If you can contain this sort of bad content in these spaces, that’s actually a win at this particular moment. It would be dangerous for the government to intervene and potentially try to take down these spaces. That said, it’s also a decision whether or not journalists [should] cover what’s going on in these places and how to cover it. Oftentimes, it’s that coverage that moves the line forward and out of these spaces.

If these spaces are attracting people, it’s [still] a relatively small number, which I think is important. However, that also can have implications. If we look at January 6, it didn’t take a lot of people to engage in these types of actions. But a free society with free and open information is always going to have question of where do we stop and draw the line for the safety and security of other people. That’s not necessarily a line that I am qualified to draw, nor should I be drawing it.

We talk a lot about hate speech on online platforms, but there is also some blame to be placed on mainstream media outlets that for a number of reasons are aligned with politicians and reproduce extremist rhetoric. Recent reports have shown the role of Fox News in spreading extremist messages, for example. How do you assess this phenomenon?

There’s some really excellent research on this [which show that] one of the reasons why bad information was able to make its way into the White House and to Donald Trump was because Fox News was sourcing from right-leaning and right-wing spaces where misinformation and disinformation was. So Fox News was absolutely part of the flow of mis- and disinformation into the White House and also was very much a part of the flow of mis- and disinformation out of the White House as well.

On the other hand, you had journalists on Fox News – for example, Chris Wallace – who at times pushed back against Donald Trump’s claims about the press being the enemy of the people. And that’s critically important, because to counter this sort of propaganda and disinformation bubbles, you have to have sources from within that political party that is producing that information, from within that sort of context where the information is coming from, to be able to try to puncture holes in these sorts of conspiratorial arguments. And that’s what you saw the role of Chris Wallace doing.

Since then, Chris Wallace has left Fox News. Even some of the internal mechanisms at Fox News to make sure you get accurate content, they’ve been downplayed since the election. Where I think the challenge is, is in Fox News’s opinion-based programming and the types of strategies that they’re engaging in to try to essentially keep their viewers coming back for more.

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